February 6, 2011

Homecourt Advantage

In most sports you often give the edge to the team playing on their own territory. It's not a guaranteed success, of course, but even the 2-14 Carolina Panthers scored both their wins in Charlotte.

The same is not always true in tennis -- the last Brit to win Wimbledon, after all, was Fred Perry back in 1936 -- but at some smaller tournaments, like those that took place over the last week, we saw a couple of hometown heroes get a chance to shine, and some made a real breakthrough.

Santiago Giraldo isn't from Chile, but his Colombia is not far away. And playing in a town that bears his name, I imagine the crowds were on his side at the Movistar Open. South Americans dominated the draw in Santiago with three Argentines and a Brazilian making the quarters along with Giraldo. But the twenty-three year old from Bogota pulled off upsets over Juan Ignacio Chela and Potito Starace to make his first ever championship match.

There he met Spain's Tommy Robredo, a man who'd racked up nine titles in his career but lost their only previous meeting at the Australian Open just last month. Robredo's been in something of a slump recently, so it wasn't out of the question to see the technical upset, but after he got off to a set lead in the match I began to lose hope. Giraldo came back to even the score and even got a break lead in the decider, but when he failed to serve it out Robredo didn't look back. He converted his second match point in the tiebreak, denying the ultimate championship to the Colombian, but at least giving him hope for his next attempt.

The South Africa Open in Johannesburg saw more than a few of its own stars pull off upsets. Wildcard Rik de Voest made the quarters while Izak Van Der Merwe won his first Tour level matches on his way to the semis. But it was fourth-seeded Kevin Anderson who ultimately made the biggest impression. I've often wondered why the strong server hasn't made more of a dent in the pros -- currently ranked at #59, he's hovered in the low double-digits for about a year. He gave Sam Querrey a run for the money in Los Angeles last summer and took revenge on him two weeks later in Toronto. Yet he hadn't really broken through main draws.

That is, until this week. The six-foot-eight former star at the University of Illinois rattled off fifty-three aces on his way to his second career final where he met Somdev Devvarman. After losing the first set to his college rival, Anderson rebounded to win the next two in about an hour more. The title was the first won by a South African since Wesley Moodie took Tokyo in 2005 and should push Kevin to a career-high ranking. Having now improved to a 8-3 record on the year, it could be his turn to crack into the top tiers of the sport.

A little further north in Croatia, many of the locals were stopped right out of the gate. Still the top two seeds reflected how strong the country has been in recent months -- two-time defending champ Marin Cilic and world #16 Ivan Ljubicic lead the pack, but were both defeated in the quarters. Instead compatriot Ivan Dodig, who broke into the top hundred at the end of last year, came out firing. The only man to take a set from Australian Open champ Novak Djokovic in Melbourne beat one seed after another in the city where he lives.

For his efforts, Dodig earned the right to meet world #61 Michael Berrer in his first Tour final. They'd never played each other before, but with five more years in the pros and a couple big wins of his own under his belt, the German was probably still the favorite. But Ivan was unstoppable from the start. At just six-feet tall, he was the shorter of the two, but fired off sixteen aces and won more than eighty percent of his first serves. He denied Berrer seven break chances and eventually won the match in straight sets, taking just over ninety minutes to capture his maiden trophy.

Of course the hometown edge benefits some more than others, but with these guys making a real statement on their own turf, there's really no telling what they'll be able to do in other stadiums.

And now that they have that added bit of confidence, I'm betting we'll see a lot more of all of them.

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